Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Thai Travel: It's all about the people

I had ducked into the featureless-looking restaurant to escape the sudden downpour of rain, no less inconvenient for its predictability in Chiang Mai's monsoon. It had light yellow tables with dark green outlines, and I fought against my instinct to dismiss the presence of the dark green as part of the scheme of an owner who didn't understand the effect of this colour in lowering the appetite; I was already there, and I grimly resigned myself to the fact that I would just have to make the most of this place until the criss-crossing curtains of rain were extracted from the hot, humid airspace. At least this place is air conditioned, I thought.

I sat down at a table facing an elderly couple munching on familiar-looking Thai dishes with elegant enthusiasm. I admired the man's tall, delicate physique and thoughtful demeanour, and decided that I would make myself look as interesting and approachable as possible. It must have worked, for the man initiated an on/off conversation with me, praising the chef, asking me about my background and teaching me the correct tones for 'mai pen rai' (roughly translating to 'never mind'). I loved the sing-song quality of the phrase, which made me a quick learner.

While we were talking, I picked up on the fact that this man was socialising openly and passionately with me despite a reserve of general (and probably well-deserved) proportions towards farang (foreigners). He was opening up because he believed that I could match his earnestness, could relate to the things that motivated him in life, and was genuinely interested in his culture. I don't usually open up so quickly to strangers myself, yet there was a minimum of friction in our creation of an intense acquaintance.

I don't even know his name, but this unexpected encounter touched me. It shook me out of the cynicism I had accrued towards making connections that didn't have anything to do with my perceived spending power, and reminded me that all I needed to do to attract genuine people is be open to them, and be in the moment.

I do, however, remember the name of the salesgirl who offered me a ride from the White Temple in Chiang Rai to my hotel... her name was Yim, the word for smile, and we shared many smiles and the meandering small talk of two people curious about each other's lives. For the accompanying salesman who drove our group of four I have two names: one being the official Mark, and the other his nickname, Edward. (I have a feeling this had something to do with Twilight.)

Yim was eager to show her love for Chiang Rai, and told me about her business of selling motorcycles. Fresh out of the spectacular and spiritual White Temple, where I felt the lone cross-legged monk's deep meditative state as he remained focused despite crying and crawling babies, a few artists painting the walls with their unique postmodern touch - showing off how Buddhism could embrace popular culture to engage a whole new audience - or the assorted shuffles and strides of a constant stream of awe-struck visitors. By the end of the discussion with Yim, I had told her about all the Thai dishes that tantalised my tastebuds, my experience of being an only child, and why I had a deep love for Thailand. Her goodbye greeting was 'God bless you,' of which I appreciated the pure intentions, if not its literal meaning. What a sweet person!

As a nice little tangent to end on, I'd like to recommend Elizabeth Briel's podcast on 'Delicious Art', an exploration of the fascinating food culture of Bangkok and other regions of Thailand. Think fusion, and other kinds of experimentation!

1 comment:

  1. Good post! Definitely about the people. They can either make or break a travel experience from what I have learned.